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Editor's comment: as a design study makes cartoon fur fly how can consumer response to design best be measured?

It’s always interesting to see research that tries to cut through some of the intangible elements of design and shine the light of understanding into the darker corners of the industry. How do designs work and why? Can the design of a store, or the colour of a chocolate bar, really make us spend more money?

So a study from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab looking into the design of breakfast cereal packets and the layout of cereal shelves makes for interesting reading. Unfortunately it has also caused a row with cereal manufacturers who fundamentally disagree with its findings.

The Cornell study makes a number of observations. It claims that cereals aimed at children are typically placed on lower shelves than those aimed at adults. It also calculates that 57 of 86 cereal box characters, the invariably cartoon-like creatures looking out from the boxes, in the study were angled to make eye-contact with child-sized shoppers. Products aimed at adults are positioned higher with character eyes positioned to make contact with grown-ups, it says. So far, so plausible.

So the Cornell team was probably hoping for a more positive response to the survey than the one it got from General Mills, owner of cereal brands such as Trix which featured in the research.

‘Our response to an absurd cereal study’ read the title of a blog published by General Mills, which went on to pick apart the survey point by point.

By searching on Google, General Mills established that different variants of packaging showed its characters, including the Trix Rabbit, looking in pretty much every direction including up and even, in some cases, that their eyes are shut. The company also asserted that, when the character was looking down, it was invariably looking directly at the bowl of cereal in the lower part of the image.

General Mills did not stop there. The Cornell study found the characters were making eye contact with children of a height of 20.21 inches. General Mills points out gleefully that the average age children start walking is thirteen months, when their average height is already around 30 inches.

The cereal company has called the study pseudo-science, and its response does highlight an important issue: if research is going to be presented as giving objective quantitative findings it needs to use rigourous methodology and have significant breadth if its findings are to be accepted.

It is difficult to establish which elements of a design work, and attempts to quantify the appeal of cereal box art was never going to be an easy task. But can it be done to the satiffaction of all parties?

It’s time for some reader interaction. What methodology would you use to measure the appeal or effectiveness of a store or packaging design? Ideas please to matthew@retaildesignworld.com

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